Selling a smartphone or other Internet reading device without a pornography filter would become a crime under a bill before the Alabama House of Representatives.

Adults who want their filters turned off would have to pay a $20 fee and request the deactivation in writing, under HB 428, a bill filed earlier this month by Rep. Jack Williams, R-Vestavia Hills.

Civil liberties advocates say the bill could infringe on free speech, and even Williams seemed willing to back away from some of the bill’s provisions Monday.

“I’m just trying to get a conversation started,” Williams said. “If somebody doesn’t introduce legislation, nobody’s going to talk about this.”

The bill by Williams would make it a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail, to sell an Internet access device without a filter to block out obscene material, child pornography, “images used for sexual cyberharassment” or sites used for prostitution or human trafficking. Selling a device without a filter to a minor would be a Class C felony, punishable by one to 10 years in prison.

Filters would be “active” and could be turned off only after the $20 state fee is paid. The seller could charge an additional fee for deactivation as well.

Williams said his goal is to keep pornography out of the hands of minors. Kids are getting earlier and more extensive exposure to porn as a result of the spread of smartphones.

“I want to start the argument,” he said. “Let’s sit down and talk about what we’re going to do to make protecting children the primary focus.”

Williams said his bill is based on the Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Act, a model bill being pushed in several state legislatures by a conservative group known by the same name. Attempts to reach the group’s primary contact, Mike Donnelly, were not successful Monday.

Similar bills, including the $20 fee, have been introduced in South Carolina and North Dakota, drawing fire from free speech advocates, some of whom have described the filters as “ransomware.”

“I think it’s got constitutional problems written all over it,” said Randall Marshall, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama. “Attempts to censor the Internet have been going on for some time now, but this seems particularly broad.”

Marshall said filtering software is already available for parents who want to install it, but adults shouldn’t have to pay the state to see the Web without a filter.

“There is no $20 asterisk on the First Amendment,” he said.

The bill wouldn’t affect the millions of Internet-enabled devices already in the hands of Alabama residents. Asked if the bill, set to go into effect Jan. 1 if it passes, would suddenly halt sales of most Internet devices in the state, Williams said he hoped not.

“I’m hoping we’ll set the standard that other states will eventually adopt,” he said.

Williams said he sat down with representatives of cable companies Monday morning to talk with them about the bill. Attempts to reach lobbyists for the Alabama Cable Association weren’t immediately successful Monday. Williams said he realized the bill could pose challenges for Internet providers.

“I don’t want to create a situation where companies are in fear because some code-writer in Ukraine found out how to get around their filter, and now the company is liable,” he said.

Williams said the bill would likely change in committee. He said he was open to dropping key provisions including the $20 fee.

The bill has yet to reach committee, but it already has 23 co-sponsors, meaning nearly one-fourth of the House has already declared its support. Among those House members are Republicans Becky Nordgren of Gadsden, Koven Brown of Jacksonville and Randy Wood of Saks  — half of Calhoun County’s six-member delegation.

“Twenty dollars to keep a kid from getting exposed to that is fine with me,” Wood said. He said lawmakers signed onto the bill largely because of the pitch Williams made when passing the legislation around on the House floor. Lawmakers will read it more thoroughly, and probably made changes, when it gets to committee, he said.

Williams has often proposed bills designed to curb human trafficking, typically with an eye toward shifting punishment away from women working as prostitutes while increasing penalties for pimps and johns.

Sometimes his efforts have put him at odds with free speech advocates. Last year, the state banned publication of mugshots of women arrested for prostitution under a law Williams pushed through the House. The Alabama Press Association called the bill a “blatant form of prior restraint” of free speech.

Whether that law is being enforced is unclear. Several news outlets earlier this month posted photos of women arrested in a Tuscaloosa prostitution sting.

(The Anniston Star, under a long-standing policy, doesn’t typically publish either photos or names of people accused of sex-related crimes until they’ve been indicted. Prostitution is a misdemeanor, and The Star rarely covers misdemeanor cases.)

In past years, Williams has also proposed taxes on pornography, though his proposals never gained approval in both houses.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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